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Mon, 09/09/2013 - 15:42

The empty lecture hall is just one sign of redesign in higher education. Substituting digital formats for large live lectures is the simplest and earliest stage of higher education redesign. This process of substituting synthetic for real will take several years and there will be many failed experiments. Whether in the mega courses offered by Coursera and their ilk, or the burgeoning number of asynchronous on-line offerings of traditional institutions, the availability of higher education is rapidly expanding beyond the traditional constraints of geography and time. Almost all of the expansion is digital.

The good news is that most of these new digital forms are no worse—and are often better—than the large traditional lecture hall formats. Most would agree that expanded access to higher education is a good thing for most of the planet’s population. Daphne Koller considers it to be inappropriate to compare Coursera’s offerings (and other digital product) to face-to-face interaction with the best faculty members. The only fair comparison is access versus no access.

That’s an easy argument to win when the prospective student is a brilliant 16-year-old in rural Asia or Africa. The difficult reality for traditional higher education is that it is an increasingly effective argument even in the urban centers of the First World. That is why politicians of all stripes have been calling for higher education to be redesigned to improve access and reduce costs. The calls are now becoming demands enforced by legislative action.

Pedagogy Politicized—At its core this is an argument about money and pedagogy. Decades of research on teaching and learning have established a positive relationship between academic success and student engagement—face-to-face faculty-to-student and student-to-student interactions in an academic community. This is particularly true for first and second year students, and success in the first semesters is tied to graduation rates—rapidly emerging as the simplistic “miles per gallon” measure of academic value.

Pedagogical experiments are gaining momentum. Blended/hybrid formats and the “scaled-up” classes for up to 150 pioneered by Robert Beichner are gaining widespread acceptance. These formats are a significant improvement over the quality of the large traditional lecture. Still, they do not reproduce the old-fashioned face-to-face unmediated exchange between a faculty member and a small group of students. Only the wealthiest student can afford that model. It is available at a handful of institutions in the world with student faculty ratios of 7 to 1, not the 17 to 1 of the brand name universities of the West and Midwest. As desirable as this model might be, it is not a viable higher education redesign strategy. There is not enough of anything—money, facilities or time.

A viable redesign strategy will provide a balance between the traditional “gold-standard” of personal face-to-face faculty student interaction and the exploitation of the best digital options as they evolve. This route offers improved access and reduced cost while maintaining academic quality. With the student at the center of the diagram, the redesign is not about reducing rigor. It is about coming to offer curricula designed to create value for students rather than gatekeeping criteria for faculty members.

This is a more difficult redesign than non-academics realize. Academic leaders are caught in vise between politicians and faculties. The politicians have little appetite for nuanced arguments about pedagogy. Faculties are sworn to maintain an increasingly fragile level of academic quality. Yet there seems to be an insufficient sense of urgency to take action. Perhaps with shortening terms of institutional leadership, presidents and provosts figure impacts will arrive for the next gal. In addition, most academic leaders acknowledge some flaws, but they don’t consider them to be “fatal.” That’s a pretty low standard, but one that works in the short run.

Just the Beginning—The loss of the large traditional lecture hall format through digital substitution is just the beginning of the redesign that needs to take place. However, as the discussion about pedagogy gets more politicized, much more will be at stake; much more than moving large and impersonal lectures will be in play. The physical and pedagogical viability of the campus itself will be on the line. Through intentional redesign of the balance between the real and the synthetics some institutions will be able to retain the lasting value of face-to-face interaction between faculty members and students. Without significant redesign and sufficient care, that may vanish along with the lousy lecture.

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